OMG you guys, have you heard? Yoga is all about ... how to put this gently without scaring the children? It's all about your naughty bits. Your genitals. It's true.
It's also all about kinky superstar "gurus," sexual healing and drug-crazed orgies where everyone gets naked, sleeps with married people and prays to weird Hindu gods with ten arms, flaming red tongues and giant stone phalluses that crazed devotees pour lots of milk, butter, honey and flowers all over as regular ritual. I know! What's not to like?
How do I know all this? I just read it in the New York Times. I just read, more specifically, all about the great John Friend/Anusara yoga sex scandal of 2012 -- a very big deal indeed in the yoga world right now, by the way -- as covered, in small part, by the Times' sole yoga-practicing writer in a hundred-mile radius (apparently), a seemingly nice but largely misinformed science guy named William Broad.
Wait, William Broad? Wasn't he the one who wrote that rather obnoxious Times piece back in January titled "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," which was an excerpt from his new book The Science of Yoga and which nearly every yoga teacher I know thought was irresponsible and lame and rather horribly framed? Why yes, that's the guy. He's a science writer, remember. So, you know, caveat emptor.
And now this. Broad has followed his lopsided treatise on how yoga can kill you with -- let me see if I have this right -- how yoga can make you into an orgasmic pervert sex monkey love guru. Isn't life grand?
Let me back up for a second. In case you haven't heard, the world of yoga took a severe hit recently when one of its biggest, sweetest, most successful stars, the kindly Fraggle rocker known as John Friend, founder of the popular hybrid yoga style called Anusara, was recently busted wide open as having all sorts of naughty sex with all sorts of women, students, sticky yoga mats, and so on.
Sexting and dirty pictures? Yes. Infidelity and adultery coupled to a big stack of lies? Afraid so. Also accusations of drugs, excessive partying, Wiccan sex rites, "sexual healing," possible fiscal impropriety and biting the head off a live bat right there on stage. I might be exaggerating that last part. But not by much.
It's all just breathless and sadly titillating, isn't it? After all, upwards of 14 million Americans practice yoga these days. It's a multi-billion dollar business. To see one of its most beloved and respected teachers fall from grace and resign his leadership role is a difficult, heartbreaking blow indeed. It's been extremely tough on many wonderful teachers I know personally.
But here's where it gets clunky. In his Times piece, Broad, who seems like a very nice, judicious guy but doesn't have much dexterity with deeper spiritual insight, traces not only John Friend's impropriety, but the very foundations of modern yoga itself straight back to ... can you guess? ... that's right, a fringe cluster of "Tantric sex cults." Wait, what?
Excuse me while I sigh heavily a few times. See, Broad claims, without a single citation beyond what appears to be lots of cribbing straight from Wikipedia, that original Tantric yogic rites "could" have included "individual or group sex." He says there's "one text" (there are thousands of Tantric scriptures) that instructs followers to revere the female sex organ (OK, no argument there) and "enjoy vigorous intercourse." Oh my God! Just like the hippies! And me!
He then spins off into some lovely recent studies about yoga's health benefits (which happen to include sex and improved libido), and also a Rutgers study that has almost nothing to do with yoga per se, about how breathing heavily, sweating hard and working the body into a fine lather can help enflame the libido and induce easier orgasm. Gosh, really? Here I've been using ice cubes and a rusty nail gun this whole time. I gotta change my technique.
Would you be interested to learn that real Tantric philosophy, by the way, has almost nothing to do with sex as lustful orgasmic goal? That those cheesy Kama Sutra books and related "Tantric sex" workshops are mostly a distortion, a myth, a bastardized ad campaign designed to sell you what amounts to overpriced massage oil and some softcore porn? Sorry, Marin County, it's true.
Know this all ye who dare to care: Tantra is not a sex practice, and never really was (though there are a handful of Tantric schools that employ some sex ritual, it is far from the dominant theme). Want to knows what Tantra really is? Here's a link. And another. And another. And a great book. (Full disclosure: I've been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for a couple years now, most recently with one of the finest scholars in the business, and we have yet to have a single wild orgy or virgin sacrifice. I know! Total rip-off).
Honestly, I do not know why the New York Times dislikes yoga so much. I do not know why they run such cockeyed, poorly researched pieces about it by a very nice, honest writer who appears completely reasonable on one hand, but who also appears to have no deeper mystical understanding of his own.
So then. As a longtime Vinyasa teacher here in San Francisco (12 years and counting), as someone who's taught with and/or trained with a large number of major teachers across most popular styles you can name, as a devoted Shaiva Tantra adherent, and also and as someone who enjoys many happily debauched Burning Mans and isn't afraid to mention lube and ecstasy, anal sex and whisky, God and love, Wicca and a fine grass-fed steak all in the same paragraph -- as someone, finally, who has had his body, heart, relationships, worldview and entire life reshaped and blown wide open in a thousand challenging, painful, radiant ways as a result of a dedicated yoga practice, often I'm asked, "So? Is it true? Is it really a weird sex cult?"
I am tempted to answer: "How did you get this number, Mr. Santorum?" I want to say, "If you think modern yoga is based in some freaky fringe Tantric ritual, you have done some inferior research indeed an were obviously racing to deadline and should know better." I'm tempted to say, "Why not try it for yourself and see? Why not dive deep into the more serious philosophical aspects and practices, and find the hell out?"
But I won't say that, because despite my frustration with Broad and John Friend (and I'm far from alone) that would be a bit callous. And not very compassionate. And also beside the point.
So let's get to the point...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He recently discussed how to be outraged in America, begged Oh my God please do not eat this, and is fairly certain Jesus took magic mushrooms. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...
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